In 2012 Stevenson University, located on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland, entered into an important partnership with the Maryland Bible Society. The Society had an extensive collection of rare and antique Bibles and related documents but no place to properly store and display them. Stevenson University offered space in its library and today houses the collection. The jewel of this collection is a rare first edition King James Bible, the next of the 25 objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity.
The Protestant Reformation was inseparable from a new and heightened commitment to the Word of God. The Bible in the people’s common tongue was the key to the growth and the influence of Protestant theology. In 1525 William Tyndale produced his great English translation of the New Testament and once it got into the hands of the general population, England would never be the same. In the decades that followed, many other translations would appear, none so prominent and none so important as the King James Bible of 1611.
In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died without an heir and Scotland’s James VI acceded to the throne of England where he was crowned James I. The following year he convened the Hampton Court Conference to enter into discussions with leaders of the Church of England, including several Puritans. Not surprisingly, the conference turned out to be something of a farce. James had a lofty view of his own intellect and was dismissive of others, especially the Puritans. However, he did give in on one crucial matter important: the commissioning of a new, authorized translation of the Bible.
The early English translations of the Bible had been the work of individuals. However, this new translation was to be the work of committees. Fifty four eminent scholars were chosen to take up the work and they were divided into six teams, each of which would translate a selection of books. Though guided by the original Hebrew and Greek text, the translators worked primarily from existing English translations. The Bishops’ Bible of 1568 would be the foundational text, but, when the translators lacked clarity, they were authorized to consult the Tyndale Bible, the Coverdale Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible. Before their work began, Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London, drafted fifteen translation principles that would govern their work.
It was not until 1607 that the labor began in earnest. Work continued until 1611 when the first editions were finally published by Robert Barker, a printer officially licensed by the king.
The early editions of the King James Bible are not without some controversy. There are two editions reputed to have been printed in 1611 and they are typically known as the “She” Bible and the “He” Bible based on two variations of the wording of Ruth 3:15: “And he went into the citie” or “And she went into the citie.” Today most scholars are confident that the “He” Bible was the very first edition and the wording of Ruth 3:15 was changed to “she” in the second.
The King James Bible would be known as the Authorized Bible because it was authorized for public reading in worship services. It would be revised many times with the most enduring version finalized in the early 19th century. Year after year it would be the world’s bestselling book. For almost 250 years this text would be the dominant translation in the English language and its impact on theology, language, and the formation of the mind is incalculable. It has rightly been described as “the most influential version of the most influential book in the world, in what is now its most influential language.”
In 2011 Joseph McGraw, Professor of history at Stevenson University, visited the offices of Maryland Bible Society and was shocked when he spotted an ancient King James Bible and opened it to see that it was one of those original “He” editions. No one knows how one of those Bibles came to Maryland and no one is quite sure how long it sat in the director’s office at the Maryland Bible Society. Such first editions are extremely rare with only 175 known to still exist. McGraw saw it for the treasure it is and knew it needed a better and safer home.
That volume now rests with the rest of the Maryland Bible Society’s collection in Stevenson University’s library. Encased in glass, visitors can view this treasure. It has not escaped the ravages of time. Pages have been stained, torn, and repaired. The binding is in poor condition. But the print remains dark and bold. And the Word of God lives on.
More in The History of Christianity in 25 Objects:
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Introduction
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Augustus of Prima Porta
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito